Nurturing Places Where Art Works

As the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill said famously, “all politics are local.” Could this be a lesson for the arts sector?

Trudel | MacPherson is intrigued by the Arts Spaces initiatives taking root across the U.S. and suggested the topic Art Works: A Discussion About Art Spaces and Communities for an Alliance for the Arts/Times Arts Forum. Panelists from the Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Festival and Artspace Projects discussed the transformative role arts assets and artists can play in reviving neighborhoods and strengthening communities.

The now nine year old Tribeca Film Festival – a virtual Arts Space without walls – began as an artistic antidote to Lower Manhattan’s post 9/11 depression and utilized available arts assets to mount the first festival in early 2003. Panelist, Craig Hatkoff, co-founder of the Festival, characterized the Festival as a “disruptive innovation” which takes part of its inspiration from the open source computing movement. Craig contrasted iconic permanent arts structures with the Tribeca Film Festival’s embrace of self-correcting systems described in Eric S. Raymond’s book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Kelley Lindquist, director of Artspace Projects, discussed examples of Artspace developments, where the creation of affordable live/work space for artists and arts organizations has supported the professional growth of artists and enhanced the cultural and economic vitality of surrounding communities.

Roberta Uno spoke about the Ford Foundation’s new initiative Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces, a 10 year $100,000,000 commitment to encourage development of a new generation of arts spaces. This is good news for the beleaguered sector and echoes local initiatives which strive to support arts groups and artists that are anchoring developing neighborhoods.

The Ford program acknowledges the potential of a strong cultural sector to help drive economic revitalization in hard-hit neighborhoods. Ford is looking for groups that are already integral to their communities – such as the Pregones Theater in the South Bronx and the Chen Dance Center which recently re-opened in the heart of Chinatown – which rally the support of local stakeholders because they are relevant to their lives and their culture.

The question of being relevant is hardly new but we commend to your attention 2010 report by the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund: The Arts Ripple Effect: A research-based strategy to build shared responsibility for the arts. (Available at http://www.fineartsfund.org/arts_ripple_effect.)

The Fund studied how various types of messages “played” among the “moveable middle” of citizens – those who aren’t focused on the arts in their daily lives but do care about the health and vitality of their neighborhood and community. The key findings are that seemingly promising messages about arts’ evocation of civic inspiration and human universals didn’t resonate with the public. The ones that moved the needle emphasized one organizing idea: “A thriving arts sector creates ‘ripple effects’ of benefits throughout the community.” The most compelling of these? Just the ones that the arts uniquely provide – 1) The arts make neighborhoods livelier, attracting tourists and residents to the area and 2) The arts enable diverse groups to share common experiences and by hearing new perspectives, understand each other better.

The bottom line is simple but perhaps profound — Of course a thriving arts sector produces those local benefits (which is of course why artist rich neighborhoods gentrify faster than others – often resulting in artists being unable to afford to live there!) Bravo Ford for its investment in the creative energy of America to help artists and arts organizations develop vibrant cultural spaces even in times of economic hardship.

One of the political leaders we were privileged to work with during our time at Wallace was Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. When asked why he was such a strong supporter of the arts he replied (I’m paraphrasing) “For me, it’s not about art, it’s about how the arts and artists make people want to come to, hang out in and stay in Philadelphia – and that helps me do my job of keeping the city lively and livable.”

So there you have it. Simple? Profound? Maybe the arts can be each community’s “ruby slippers” reminding citizens why “There’s no place like home?”

A 2007 study by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania describes the impact of cultivating “natural” Cultural Districts. They’re not talking about building high profile, big-ticket downtown cultural districts (think Lincoln Center) but rather about using culture to revitalize the urban grass-roots — its neighborhoods and their residents’ civic engagement.

This is about nurturing “down home” indigenous culture — as the report notes: “The arts are no longer just about going to the symphony, the ballet, or a Broadway musical. They are more active, more accessible, and more polyglot. Artists have become social entrepreneurs; selling their wares as well as their vision…The arts build ties that bind – neighbor-to-neighbor and community-to-community.”

It is these social networks that translate cultural vitality into economic dynamism. They are natural cultural districts which identify and ennoble the density of assets of each neighborhood and set it apart from other neighborhoods as a place to be and a place to belong.

As new NEA Chairman, Rocco Landesman said, “From the foot traffic of people coming to studios and rehearsals to the influx of people looked for a place to eat or drink after an art opening or before a show, these buildings (spaces) attract new people and often expendable income to neighborhoods.”

As the arts assume their transformative role in our new decade – Thinking local is a promising place to start.

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